I’ve written about our fire-bellied toad, Blazer, in a previous essay–explaining how my friend Jara so generously gave my frog-loving daughter the pet of her dreams. Breaking my no reptiles/no rodents pet rule was a valuable lesson in learning to say “yes” when my knee-jerk (and perhaps wiser?) reaction was to say “no.”
Jara does not have an issue with saying “no,” especially when it comes to animals. When she purchased Blazer for Clara, she also purchased a fire-bellied toad to add to her own pet menagerie. But occasionally, Jara becomes overloaded with pet care and has to thin the herd, so to speak. Last spring, she wanted to give Lazer to us. (Her offer included Lazer’s million dollar frog condo that is identical to Blazer’s. Apparently fire-belly toads have personality issues of their own and will kill each other if put in the same small area.)
“What’s one more little green frog?” she coaxed.
“No,” I told her, my mouth set in a firm, grim line.
“You have to buy the crickets anyway,” she pointed out.
“No,” I repeated.
“Remember how much you grew to love Blazer? You wrote an essay about it and everything.”
Lacking an adequate comeback, before I knew it, we’d taken Lazer in as our own.
But two frogs are . . . well . . . two frogs. And while Lazer wasn’t that much more work, somehow the “specialness” of having Blazer eroded for both Clara and me. This reminded me of an article I once read about a little boy who loved a small red matchbox car. He played with it all day long. A well-meaning relative had everyone she knew collect matchbox cars for him. When faced with a heaping pile of little cars, the boy lost interest and never played with any of them again. The message was clear: more is not always better. I feared that taking on Lazer was our matchbox car excess.
But that changed last fall, when we went out of town for a week. Since fire-bellied toads require their water bowls to be changed daily, and also need a new infusion of live crickets every other day (dead won’t do), I hired a friend’s daughter to handle their care whenever we travel. Olivia, at 15, is over-the-top intelligent and responsible. (In the summer we hire her to water the yard as well as care for our pets, and our landscaping looks much better when we return from our vacation than when we left.) Olivia’s mother also taught her to be exceptionally respectful so she responds with patient cheerfulness when prior to our departure I sent her three email reminders with frog care attachments. I really love Olivia.
So I felt especially bad for her when I received the following email mid-way through our trip.
I’m so sorry to bother you on your vacation. I’ve been taking care of your animals since Saturday and it seemed to go well. Blazer is doing fine. However, on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday I did not see Lazer and just assumed that he was hiding in the foliage at the bottom of the cage.
I went to your house today, and after not seeing Lazer again, I decided to search the cage thoroughly for the little guy. After lifting all the leaves, and looking under the water bowls, I found Lazer at the bottom of the cage, in the corner. At first I thought he was a wood chip because he was black and shriveled up. Lazer is dead. I’m not sure from what, but the poor little guy is gone. I cleaned his water, and fed him crickets, and misted him, so I don’t really know what went wrong. I’m so sorry, I feel really awful that this happened while you were away.
I have wrapped him up in layers of paper towels and placed him in your freezer for burial once your family gets back. If you would like, I would be happy to pay for a replacement Lazer, I know how attached an individual can get to his/her pet.
Once again, I’m so sorry this happened, I too got attached to the little guy. Please tell Clara and Emma how sorry I am. I apologize for putting a damper on your vacation.
“Oh, no,” said my husband when I told him. “Clara’s going to be so upset.” We both were remembering when our labrador died a few years earlier. Clara sobbed for days, completely inconsolable.
I sat Clara down and as gently but straightforwardly as possible, explained to her that Lazer had died.
“But I took good care of him, and he was doing so well,” said Clara, her eyes welling with tears. “And I know that Olivia took good care of him too.”
I wrapped my arms around her as she sobbed mournfully, feeling the parental heartbreak that comes when your child is faced with a hard life lesson. “I know, Honey. But sometimes, things just happen. Even when you take really good care of them, pets die. Who knows why,” I explained, my own eyes filling with tears.
Even though I knew these were the right words to say, I also knew that it might take Clara a while to actually understand them. I still struggle to accept this reality. I know intellectually that life just happens sometimes, but I still fight tooth and nail each day to outmaneuver the inevitable: maintain an even keel, plan ahead for disaster, set the stage for happiness, and keep the damn frogs alive. I am thrown into a tailspin, surprised each time things don’t work out as planned.
We promised Clara that we would have a service for Lazer as soon as we got home, and her sister Emma began to work on the eulogy. Clara did her best to bounce back, and only once in a while became a little teary and sad.
Then, three days later, we got another email from Olivia. The subject line read “OH MY GOSH!”.
Fantastic (and extremely embarrassing!) news: Lazer is alive!!! Today when I went to take care of Blazer, guess who greeted me at the door? Lazer! Lazer was on the inside wall of his cage, fully colored and breathing! Which means that he is just incredibly good at hide-and-seek and that I put a clump of bark in the paper towels in the freezer. Lazer still had water and crickets in his cage so he should still be well fed.
I apologize sincerely for putting your family through the death of a pet. I am not sure how I did not see him, and how I mistook bark for a frog. But I did. Tell Clara and Emma I am so sorry for making them believe their frog was dead. I’m soooooooooooooo sorry!
It was a miracle! At first, Clara didn’t quite believe it. (She had the same initial reaction I did when I read the first line of Olivia’s email: How did Lazer come back to life if he was frozen?) We explained what happened, and slowly Clara accepted that her dead frog hadn’t been mysteriously resurrected, but had never been dead in the first place. After a while, she asked, “So are we still having a memorial service for the piece of bark in the freezer?”
We didn’t. Instead, when we got home we gathered around Lazer’s cage and celebrated that he was still alive, giving him more attention than he’d gotten in months. He promptly went and hid behind some foliage, but we didn’t care, we were just so glad to see both frogs alive and well.
The phrase “Lazer Lives!” became our family code for the second life lesson of Lazer’s not-quite death. Although it is important to be thoughtful about taking in more than you can care for so your life isn’t burdened with an unused pile of metaphorical matchbox cars, it is equally important to appreciate and value what you already have–be it a pet, your belongings, or the people in your life–before it is too late. Sometimes I get resentful about all the chores required to maintain the house and yard, and on occasion, I get a wee bit irritated at the people I live with over the smallest things. And yes, the frequent trips to the pet store for more crickets are inconvenient, but lately, a swing past Lazer’s cage brings it all back into perspective and gives my gratitude meter a healthy nudge upward. When I remember my “Lazer Lives!” mantra, household jobs become less burdensome, small irritations dissolve pretty quickly, and I remember that fewer trips to the pet store would mean one less frog.
I know that Olivia is chagrined about misjudging a piece of bark for a dead frog, but that is the final lesson of Lazer’s mistaken demise. Sometimes our missteps are really a gift in disguise. Our mistakes often give others an opportunity to learn that which they need to understand the most. Before it is too late.